Here's a way to take the whole world in your hand

With e-readers coming of age, Joe Rennison finds out what they could they do for researchers

June 25, 2009

Arnold Schwarzenegger wants them to replace textbooks in California's schools, Rupert Murdoch says they will become "the norm", and some believe that they are on the brink of their "iPod moment". But what promise does the e-reader hold for researchers?

The British Library hopes to shed light on the question by displaying three e-readers - devices on which one can read electronic text - in a public exhibition due to run until mid-July. It aims to give researchers a chance to play around with some of the devices available and explore their potential, both for work and recreation.

"The incredible versatility of the new e-readers makes them perfect for researchers, allowing easy access to a wealth of information including previously rare and out-of-print material," said Stephen Bury, the library's head of European and American Collections.

More than a book

An e-reader is a portable device that can be used to view electronically available books, journals and monographs, allowing users to access academic material on the move.

The latest versions can hold up to 3,500 periodicals, books and documents and are designed to mimic the experience of holding a book.

One of the advantages of e-readers over laptops is that they are not backlit. They use an "electronic paper display", also known as "e-ink", so the text on screen appears more like that of text printed on a page and puts less of a strain on the eyes than computer screens.

They have a much longer battery life than laptops, making them ideal for travel, and some even allow for annotations on documents, just as would be possible on a printed page.

According to Simon Bell, head of strategic partnerships and licensing at the British Library, the academic market is already "primed" for the introduction of e-readers because most journals are available online.

He also estimated that there were roughly 600,000 e-books currently available, including a growing number of textbooks.

"Publishers are busy scanning all their back catalogue. Most of the stuff they're publishing now will exist in hard-copy and in digital form," he said.

E-readers could also open doors to out-of-print and rare materials, increasing the scope of resources available to researchers.

For example, the British Library recently digitised 80,000 editions of 19th-century English literature, which it hopes to make available in e-book form.

Furthermore, e-books for use on an e-reader cost about 20 per cent less than the hard-copy version.

The e-readers available do not support all electronic document formats. However, they can handle most major file formats - including Adobe, Microsoft Word and HTML, and conversions are also possible.

Plans for a uniform file format for e-readers, which the British Library would like to see, are in the pipeline.

Reading, writing and researching

Two of the e-readers on display at the British Library are developed by the Netherlands-based iRex Technologies. Both the DR1000 and the iLiad, which cost about £600, allow printing and have a touch-sensitive stylus for annotation.

The Sony Reader, which is also on display, is designed for a wider, general market. It is smaller and lacks the annotation capabilities, but its price is about half that of the iRex e-readers.

The exhibit does not include the Amazon Kindle, which is yet to be released in Europe. It is likely to be launched in the UK this autumn. Unlike the other e-readers, the Kindle is a wireless device. E-books can be loaded straight on to it via the internet rather than having to be downloaded to a computer first.

For Mr Bell, it is not just the new material and the increased ease and portability that will benefit researchers. The technology may also change the way people do research, he said.

"You could conceivably annotate and make comparisons, do searches across lots of books very quickly - either for keywords or key concepts - or see what other people have said about a book," he said.

So far, take-up both more widely and within the academic community has been limited, said Andy Dawson, an information scientist at University College London.

The few academics who are using them seem to be doing so because they are interested in the technology rather than the features.

"The mentality (of most academics) is still very much why buy a reader when you have got a laptop ... the benefits are yet to be appreciated," he said.

Mr Bell agreed, but he emphasised that although their "iPod moment" may not yet have arrived, the next two years could herald it.

When it comes, it won't just be the wider world that feels it, but the academy, too.

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